I returned home from a few early Saturday morning errands to find a panicked message on my home answering machine. It was July 17, 1999–you remember the days before PDAs and text messages when we were out of touch for sometimes hours at a time. Anyhow, the message was from a media contact at Piper Aircraft who said the company needed help from AOPA. They were being hammered by the media because of the John F. Kennedy Jr. accident. Could we help?
Clueless as usual, I turned on the television to find that apparently everyone but I knew that young Kennedy was missing; his Piper Saratoga last heard from near Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, the night before. Thus began what turned out to be a very busy day full of media speculation.
To assist Piper, I tracked down AOPA’s media relations contacts at the time, Warren Morningstar and Drew Steketee. They both were already in the loop (they had pagers–you remember those). I put the two in touch with Piper. The media was starting to question the safety record of the venerable PA-32 and was looking for an independent source of safety information, such as the AOPA Air Safety Foundation. The PA-32 then and now has a fine safety record and the notion that the airplane was at fault quickly went away.
The July 1999 issue of AOPA Pilot happened to have a new Saratoga on the cover, which wasn’t lost on some resourceful reporters for major magazines and newspapers who quickly found my home number and started calling for insights into the airplane. Although I didn’t write that particular article, I did have several hundred hours in the trusty Saratoga. Before I was willing to share any comments I made sure I had a long enough conversation with the reporter to make sure that I felt he was truly looking for insights as opposed to seeking someone to support his own agenda. Most were quite reasonable and could be convinced not to speculate about the cause–especially since at that point they hadn’t even found the bodies of Kennedy, his wife, and sister-in-law.
The next day, a Sunday, I found myself in a Kennedy-esque sort of situation. I was flying northeast from Frederick, Maryland, to Latrobe, Pennsylvania, to look at an F33 Bonanza that I was considering buying. It was a typical Mid-Atlantic sort of summer morning–hazy, hot, and humid. There were a few scattered cumulus clouds around, but they were mostly masked by the haze. Knowing the region well, I launched VFR but soon regretted the decision. It was technically VFR, but the haze was incredibly thick–even by our usual standards. Even in daylight, I was relying mostly on the instruments, happy to have a solid autopilot in the A36 Bonanza I was flying. By my late-morning return to Frederick, the conditions were even worse, but I had wised up enough to file IFR. I couldn’t imagine flying in such conditions at night and over water with no horizon–especially without an instrument rating. What was Junior thinking?
As AOPA Air Safety Foundation President Bruce Landsberg pointed out a year later in our Landmark Accident report, the NTSB determined the accident was the result of spatial disorientation caused by the haze at night and the young pilot’s relative inexperience in flying in such conditions.
In his blog this week, Landsberg reminds us that having a Plan B is the best strategy when you think you might be headed into a situation that is more than you can handle. Equally as important is a willingness to execute Plan B, which can sometimes mean telling naive passengers that you’re driving this evening or staying home, as disappointing as that may be. Better to be stuck at home than the subject of an NTSB report and on the receiving end of a lot of media speculation.